Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to Be Happy

Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to Be Happy

Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to Be Happy

Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to Be Happy


Happiness today is not just a possibility or an option but a requirement and a duty. To fail to be happy is to fail utterly. Happiness has become a religion--one whose smiley-faced god looks down in rebuke upon everyone who hasn't yet attained the blessed state of perpetual euphoria. How has a liberating principle of the Enlightenment--the right to pursue happiness--become the unavoidable and burdensome responsibility to be happy? How did we become unhappy about not being happy--and what might we do to escape this predicament? In Perpetual Euphoria, Pascal Bruckner takes up these questions with all his unconventional wit, force, and brilliance, arguing that we might be happier if we simply abandoned our mad pursuit of happiness.

Gripped by the twin illusions that we are responsible for being happy or unhappy and that happiness can be produced by effort, many of us are now martyring ourselves--sacrificing our time, fortunes, health, and peace of mind--in the hope of entering an earthly paradise. Much better, Bruckner argues, would be to accept that happiness is an unbidden and fragile gift that arrives only by grace and luck.

A stimulating and entertaining meditation on the unhappiness at the heart of the modern cult of happiness, Perpetual Euphoria is a book for everyone who has ever bristled at the command to "be happy."


In 1738 the young Mirabeau sent a letter to his friend Vauvenargues, reproaching him for living from day to day without having any plan for achieving happiness: “See here, my friend, you think all the time, you study, and nothing is beyond the scope of your ideas; and yet you never think for a moment about making a clear plan leading to what should be our only goal: happiness.” He went on to list for his skeptical correspondent the principles that guided his own conduct: ridding himself of prejudices, preferring gaiety to moodiness, following his inclinations and at the same time purifying them. We may laugh at this juvenile enthusiasm. Mirabeau, who was the child of a time that thought it could reinvent the human being and do away with the plagues of the Old Regime, was concerned about his happiness the way people before him had been concerned about the salvation of their souls.

Have we changed that much? Consider today’s Mirabeaus—young people of all backgrounds and opinions, anxious to begin a new era and move beyond the ruins of the frightening twentieth century. They launch out into

Quoted in Robert Mauzi, L’Idée de bonheur dans la littérature et la pensée française au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Albin Michel, 1965; rpt. Geneva: Slatkine, 1979), pp. 261–262.

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